North Korea’s Maritime Evasion Tactics
Almost no other country is as heavily sanctioned by the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations as North Korea. These sanctions aim to stop the North Korean government’s proliferation of nuclear weapons by freezing the assets of involved individuals, restricting fishing rights and rights to cooperate internationally with the scientific and technical community, capping imports of natural oil and refined petroleum products, banning imports and/or exports of arms, military equipment, vehicles, luxury goods, coal, natural gas, minerals, seafood, agricultural products, and other resources. Since the 2000s, United Nations Security Council has passed numerous resolutions to continuously fortify sanctions against the Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK), yet the North Korean government has gradually developed sanctions evasion tactics during this time in order to fund its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program.
Key Maritime Sanctions Evasion Tactics
With international maritime trade being one of the lifelines of the DPRK government, allowing it to procure natural resources and funds to further its goals, maritime sanctions evasion tactics have become particularly elaborate. North Korea performs illicit, stealthy ship-to-ship transfers in order to export coal and to import natural oil, following misleading sea routes and turning off transmission signals mid-voyage. It also manipulates maritime vessel identifications by registering North Korean ships in foreign countries.
Vessel Identification and Flag Registries
Maritime trade companies must register their vessels, either at home or abroad. While some countries provide vessel documentation only to domestic companies, other countries have open registries that are not bound by nationality and allow companies from anywhere in the world to apply for vessel documentation. Open registries, such as Panama, Belize, Liberia, or Malta, are sometimes referred to as flags of convenience since ships fly the flag of the country in which they are registered rather than that of their country of origin. North Korea has exploited this opportunity by manipulating documents to register vessels in open registries, including Panama and Comoros.
Ship-to-ship transfers at sea are a useful technique to import and export sanctioned commodities, such as petroleum products and coal, as vessels do not have to land in foreign ports and therefore do not have to declare customs, a practice that would arouse suspicion. Additionally, vessels can avoid entering North Korean waters through ship-to-ship transfers, which permits greater stealth. Commonly, ship operators disable AIS (automatic identification system) transponders to prevent the detection of a vessel’s location. In recent years, North Korea has increasingly utilized this tactic for illicit maritime activities. Approximately 100 ships transmitted location and vessel ID signals each month in 2015, whereas only fewer than 12 ships out of 170 enabled AIS transponders in the latter half of 2018.
Indicators of Sanctions Evasion
North Korea’s illicit maritime activities are difficult to identify and monitor. The evasion tactics employed by DPRK authorities and seafarers oftentimes prevent a timely discovery. By the time that illicit activities are identified, North Korea may have already imported and exported goods worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. North Korean tankers with disabled AIS transponders potentially imported as much as 2.5 million barrels of natural oil during 2018, which is five times its capped annual quota of 500,000 barrels under UN sanctions.
Indicators for such illicit activities can be a sudden spike in registrations under a flag of convenience, for instance. Examining vessel documentation for ambiguous country of origin statements like Korea instead of North Korea/South Korea is another indicator. Furthermore, ship safety certificates and other documentation may be issued by fake front organizations. Monitoring the continuity of transmission signals and travel routes can also reveal suspicious activity. In order to identify North Korean operations, port authorities, maritime vessel registries, and law enforcement must have an eye for detail.
Conclusion: The Difficulty of Combating Sanctions Evasion
From a policy perspective, applying maximum pressure on the DPRK through tougher sanctions may not always result in the best outcomes. Thus far, North Korea has met increasingly rigorous sanctions with resistance, refining evasion techniques instead of complying with sanctions regimes. For this reason, the utility of sanctions can be ensured through better sanctions enforcement, a task that requires relentless and meticulous effort. Port authorities and ship registrars are the pillars of sanctions enforcement. They must be well-trained in the tricks of North Korea’s trade while also remaining alert and reliable. Ensuring this is certainly a difficult task, yet it appears that there are no alternatives if sanctions-imposing powers like the UN, the EU, or the US want to prevent the DPRK from evading sanctions and thus undermining their utility.